Wolfram & Feynman

thu18jan2007—03w018d4%— 03h55m00s—0utc

I tried to cram myself with Stephen Wolfram trivia (there’s all you might want at his website) before seeing him live at the 2006 Summer Startup School but I wish I had read this brief correspondence he had with Feynman. I would have been in still more awe (which might had been counterproductive, I might no have had the courage to approach him and make a fool of myself).


In the early 1980s, Stephen Wolfram turned his energies from traditional areas of fundamental physics to creating the new field of complexity research. Some physicists and science administrators were skeptical about this new direction.

Dear Feynman,
First, thanks very much for your letter on the cryptosystem. I managed to break my addiction to studying the thing for a while, but am now getting back to it. I would like to try and understand systematically how far one can get with the kind of approach you were using: in particular, whether it allows the seed to be found in polynomial time. But I must say I am still reasonably confident that the system is at least hard to break. I have a new idea for showing that breaking it would be equivalent to solving an NP, complete problem; I’ll let you know if this works out.

I thought I would send the enclosed stuff that I have just written. It is not about science (which is what I would prefer to write about), but rather about the organization of science. I am being treated increasingly badly at IAS, and really have to move. I can’t see anywhere that would really be nice to go to, and would support the kinds of things I am now interested in. So I am thinking of trying to create my own environment, by starting some kind of institute. It would be so much nicer if such a thing already existed, but it doesn’t. There are a few plans afoot to create things perhaps like this, but I think they are rather misguided. You probably think that doing something administrative like this is an awful waste of time, and I am not sure that I can disagree, but I feel that I have little choice, and given that I am going to do it, I would like to do it as well as possible. Any comments, suggestions, etc., that you might have I would very greatly appreciate.

Best wishes,
Stephen Wolfram


Dear Wolfram:

  1. It is not my opinion that the present organizational structure of science inhibits “complexity research” — I do not believe such an institution is necessary.

  2. You say you want to create your own environment — but you will not be doing that: you will create (perhaps!) an environment that you might like to work in — but you will not be working in this environment — you will be administering it — and the administration environment is not what you seek — is it? You won’t enjoy administrating people because you won’t succeed in it.

You don’t understand “ordinary people.” To you they are “stupid fools” — so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience — but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way.

Find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible, with one exception, fall madly in love! That is my advice, my friend.

Richard P. Feynman

Wolfram did not follow Feynman’s advice. Not only did he establish an insti-tute but he also founded the company Wolfram Research, makers of the widely used Mathematica software system. Contrary to Feynman’s expectation Wolfram has been a successful CEO for many years. Within this environment he has managed to pursue ambitious directions in basic science, particularly through his 2002 book A New Kind of Science. He has also been happily married since the early 1990s.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track AM, p389-391

Wolfram once gave a talk on Richard Feynman precisely on the occasion of the publication of the above book of letters. It’s available from his website and it’s interesting (if you keep in mind it’s a letter about Feynman seen through the eyes of Wolfram, not one about Wolfram’s life and how he proved wrong Feynman’s advice — which was the one I wanted to read!).

Follow me on Twitter!  |  Back to ELZR.com